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VOL. 40 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 16, 2016

'We always believed in Coach Mason'

After weathering fan doubts, head-scratching losses, VU coach finds redemption

By Tom Wood

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"I spent the last 24 months driving past this orange mailbox, and I wanted to hit it every day. Every day. Sometimes I’d swerve and I’d pull back and just keep going. Now I don’t have to hit it. I just wave at it.”

-- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason on his team's win against rival Tennessee

In these heady times – rich and intoxicating for Vanderbilt players, coaches and fans – Commodore head football coach Derek Mason is somewhere between the calm in the storm and the storm itself.

Vandy has earned its first postseason appearance in three years – its eighth all-time and the first under Mason.

The Commodores also ended a roller coaster of a season by winning four of the last six regular-season games. They were at their most impressive in the last two at home, thumping Ole Miss 38-17 and then rallying from a three-point halftime deficit to overwhelm Tennessee 45-34 in the finale.

Vandy will now face the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 26 in Shreveport, Louisiana. It is a battle of 6-6 teams, a lesser bowl in the grand scheme of college football’s postseason, but one with so much meaning for the 46-year-old Mason and win-starved Commodores fans.

‘One more game’

“We knew we were going bowling,” Mason says. “We didn’t care where, we just wanted the opportunity to play one more game.

“And we earned it. We didn’t back in, we earned that.’’

Mason points out that his team’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) was good enough to have gotten them one of the 80 available bowl bids, even if it had finished 5-7.

“Now it’s just about doing the work that leads us to go out and win,” he says. “You play the game to win. You don’t play to feel good about it. You don’t play the game to go to a bowl trip.

“This is a business trip for us, and that’s exactly the way we’re going to approach it. But you can have some fun in that process.”

That approach is pure Mason, who can be focused and fun-loving at the same time.

Head coach Derek Mason gives a hug to one of the children at the bowl celebration.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

He always sees the big picture, but doesn’t forget to enjoy the small moments.

Vandy’s dominating victory over UT provided a perfect snapshot of that scenario.

His team fought the Vols but trailed 34-31 at intermission. Adjustments were made, and the Commodores dominated the second half.

Mason stalked the sidelines during those final 30 minutes of action, the intensity on his face reflecting so many close losses, calls for his firing and the determination to erase those memories with one signature win.

Then as the final minutes ticked off the clock, as joyous players doused him with the obligatory Gatorade shower, only then did Mason crack a smile and celebrate – breaking into an impromptu, unforgettable sidelines dance.

“When I’ve talked about going bowling over the last couple of days, I’d just said we’re going to try to go 1-0. That’s all we’ve been doing down the stretch. We wanted one more game,” Mason explains.

“We didn’t want to walk in through the back door. We wanted to walk in the front door, so we did that. Our goal now is not to just go to the game, it’s to go win the game. That’s what you want to do. You play to win.

“So these guys are going to get back to work; we want to make these fans proud.”

Mason’s mantra

That sidelines dance broke one of Mason’s fundamental philosophies of “keeping in the middle” – of never getting too high when things are going well, of never sinking too low when you’re struggling.

Play-by-play announcer Joe Fisher teased Mason about his dance moves at a Vandy bowl-bid celebration a few weeks ago, saying the coach was going to be cast for Dancing with the Stars, “but then after that display, he was deemed professional and could not participate.”

bowl history

1955 Gator Jacksonville VU 25, Auburn 13
1974 Peach Atlanta Texas Tech 6, VU 6
1982 Hall of Fame Birmingham Air Force 36, VU 28
2008 Music City Nashville VU 16, Boston Coll 14
2011 Liberty Memphis Cincinnati 31, VU 24
2012 Music City Nashville VU 38, N.C. State 24
2013 BBVA Compass Birmingham VU 41, Houston 24

Source: Vanderbilt athletics

It was a funny moment, joining several bowling-related references in the last few weeks. After being the butt of SEC football jokes for decades, it was good to see the Commodores getting the last laugh.

But that dance also offers a little insight into Mason’s personality.

“Oh my goodness. I asked him (about the dance) and he told me it just came out,” Fisher recalls.

“I told him, ‘you’re always about being in the middle, stay in the middle, don’t get too high or too low,’ and he kind of laughed and said, ‘The joy just overtook me.’

“And to see the reaction of the guys on the sideline when that happened, it told you a lot about how close that group is. Just a very special moment. He had some good moves.”

Like some of the criticism directed his way during the first two seasons when he compiled a combined 7-17 record, Mason took comments about his dance moves in stride.

“I had chills. I should have started dancing earlier,” Mason adds, laughing. “This group has been fun to coach. We’ve gone through some growing pains. Being 2-4 at the start of the season was not what we wanted, but these guys were committed to the process.”

A players’ coach

Vanderbilt University head coach Derek Mason wore his custon black and gold “bowling” shoes in honor of heading to a bowl game.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

The process. That’s another point of emphasis in any conversation with Mason. And it comes back to that “staying in the middle” mantra.

Mason arrived on the Vandy campus in January 2014, hired after a stellar stint as Stanford’s defensive coordinator. Mason put added pressure on himself in his inaugural press conference, saying he wanted to take the program to the next level and challenge for the SEC East title.

It certainly seemed possible after going to three consecutive bowl games under James Franklin. But some key players followed Franklin to Penn State, recruiting was tough and the 3-9 team was suddenly branded with that much-maligned “Same Old Vandy” tag of yesteryear.

The Commodores improved slightly to 4-8 in 2015, and grumbling from fans seemed to gain traction. This season’s slow start gave the criticism momentum.

Then a funny thing happened – they started winning again, surprising everyone except Mason, his players and his bosses.

“It took a lot of dedication and determination to fight through and push through adversity,” says Ralph Webb, the Commodores’ newly crowned career rushing leader.

“We faced a lot of adversity in these first two years here, when Coach Mason came in and this year we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we worked very hard and we have to find a way to send these seniors out with a bowl game.”

Sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur says the team always had Mason’s back and knew he would build a winner.

“Anytime you have change in a program, it always takes some time to get traction with the recruiting and the staff. We’ve always believed in Coach Mason,” Shurmur adds.

“He’s set a plan for us, we’ve stuck to it and he’s the man for the job. He’s a great coach and he’s done everything in his power to help make this program better.”

Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason poses for a picture with fans Brock McElroy, 4, left, and Blake McElroy, 2, both sporting Commodore hats.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

After the UT game, junior linebacker Zach Cunningham called the bowl trip a reward for progress the team made under Mason.

“Going into the season, you never know what to expect. Everybody thinks that you will be a bowl-contending team, so to actually end the season by going to a bowl game, it is an amazing feeling,” says Cunningham, who was recently named a first-team Walter Camp All-America and first-team designations on AP and ESPN All-America teams.

Man with a plan

David Williams, Commodores athletics director, has never wavered in his support of Mason, especially in the toughest of times. Like Mason, he saw better days ahead.

“We plan to continue to grow this program, and we have higher aspirations, but step one was to get back to a bowl game,” Williams explains.

“And we talked about that at the end of last year, and the progress that we saw being made, and we knew more would come. We just had to get things to click.

“I think it was the Kentucky game, and I was talking to Coach Mason and told him ‘we’re that close, we’re that close. And we’ve just got to keep pushing, and one day we’re going to walk through that door.’

“We’re really pleased for our fan base and our kids and for Coach Mason and his family because this is what they’ve been working for. So we’re glad to be going bowling again.”

Like Williams, Mason is quick to say that getting to a bowl game is only the first step of what he envisions for the program.

“They say we’re 6-6 and where is the greatness in that? OK. It’s how you got here,” Mason says.

“We lost some tough ones, but we won some big ones, and the journey still continues. Every bit of the journey for this 2016 football team has been about making it to a 13th game, and that’s what we’ve done. We’re here, so let’s make sure we finish the journey.

“I’m definitely excited about what the future looks like here for Vanderbilt. Walking across the threshold was the first thing we had to do. We kept sticking our foot in the door and getting the door slammed.

“We finally got to a point where we kicked the door in, walked through the threshold, and now there really is no turning back because of expectations. We have played well, we have performed well, now let’s go win games.”

Positive attitude, outcomes

Regardless of what happens at the bowl game, next season or wherever, Mason will never stray too far from his game plan – keeping the Commodores’ boat calm in stormy waters.

Mason never quit believing in his strategy, though he made adjustments, like naming himself as his own defensive coordinator for his second season.

“He made some strong decisions after year one in changing coordinators, which had to be done,” Fisher says. “To have the tenacity to say ‘I need to be the coordinator for defense because I really can’t find anybody who can do it better than I can’ … I think that said a lot. And we’ve seen how that evolved.

“As year three rolled around in the middle of the year, there was a time where he said, ‘We’ve got to get tougher and we’ve got to hold people more accountable.’

“And they started doing that, and obviously, you see the results. So, I think this is a guy who has grown into the job … who has evolved … who has adapted to what he thinks needs to happen to make this program better. And it’s paid off.”

Fisher says Mason’s supreme confidence in better days ahead made the difference.

“You’ve seen coaches before in this situation that panicked. They totally change, they throw things out. But I don’t think Derek ever panicked,” Fisher says.

“Derek was very confident, and is very confident, about what his message is and what his approach is. Now tweaking things along the way is something good managers do. That’s what good coaches do. He’s been very good at that.”

Mason says there’s an easy explanation as to why his confidence never wavered, why he never doubted his plan for even a single snap.

“The reason why I can’t doubt is because I tell my kids not to doubt. If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, and you’re trying to get your kids to believe in what you’re talking about, I just don’t know how that works,” Mason says.

“So like for me, I tell our kids that in everything you do, just try to be consistent.

“Our fan base is a loyal fan base. They wanted something to cheer about. And granted (the win over) Ole Miss gave them something to be excited about. And Tennessee really captured their attention in terms of this group being special.”

And indeed, fans have rallied around Mason and the program.

“It’s been a really exciting season. To see them beat Ole Miss and then Tennessee was incredible. I didn’t know if they’d make it or not,” says Vandy student Brandi Collins of Crown Point, Indiana, who was the first in line to buy a bowl game ticket.

“It’s always difficult when you’re watching the team not have the results that they’d like to see – that we’d like to see. It’s always tough,” adds Tim Michaels, a Class of 2011 alumnus.

“I’m really happy for him and the team to kind of break through there at the end, and to take this step. I think it’s just the first step. Now the next step is to win the bowl, obviously, and then he can capitalize on those talking points he made in his initial press conference.”

Adds Vandy graduate student Lillian Juttukonda: “We really like Coach Mason because he does it the right way – fundamentals. He cares about his athletes, he cares about them doing well academically and helping them achieve their goals.”

The Commodores leave for Shreveport on Dec. 22. Season ticket holders Abby and Thomas Stephenson of Thompson’s Station will be there, too.

“I really liked the hire. I thought it was a good hire. I think it took (Mason) a couple of years to come into his own as a head coach,” Thomas Stephenson explains. “You can see that he’s really involved as a head coach on the sidelines. He’s a much better game manager.

“This year has been really impressive. You can see the players really enjoy playing for him. They want to win for him.”

Adds Abby Stephenson: “He does a great job here and is a really great person, too. I think I really started believing it this season.

“This season’s football team looked like a completely different team than last season’s. Not only did Mason come into his own, but I think the team came together as well. He does a great job of not only coaching the team, but leading the team as well.

“They believe in what they’re doing, and that’s a reflection of Mason and what a great coach he is.”

And that kind of support is what makes Mason tick.

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